African Giant Millipedes
- This species can be housed in colonies and do well in plastic bins or glass aquariums as long as the substrate layer is deep enough and plenty of hides are provided.
- Brandywine Zoo: Houses in large rubbermaid style bin with holes drilled in the lid for ventilation.
- Substrate should be a minimum of 8 inches deep and 12 inches if you are trying to encourage breeding.
- Their substrate should be their primary food source.
- Philadelphia Zoo: 25% high quality compost, 25% cocofiber and 50% crushed leaf litter
- Supplementary heat should be provided and the ideal temperature range is between 65-80 degrees F. Provide a temperature gradient so animals can select zone of comfort. There is some evidence from the Philadelphia Zoo colonies that temperatures over 85 degrees are detrimental to health and have resulted in increased mortality.
- In the wild, African giant millipedes are decomposers and will eat rotting leaf litter and fruits and vegetables they find lying on the ground.
- Neonate millipedes are said to be coprophagous, eating the dung of the adults. This helps them in two ways: first, the dung is like pre-digested food, so it is easier for the young millipedes to eat it. Second, this behaviors helps seed the bacteria that aids in the digestion process.
- In captivity, they are traditionally fed lettuce, apples, potatoes, oranges, cucumbers and grapes. However, a different approach is suggested by Orin McGonigle in his book, Giant Millipedes: An Enthusiasts Handbook. This approach emphasizes the creation of substrate that is the primary food source with only once or biweekly presentation of supplemental food items. The food substrate is composed of a mix of approximately 25% high quality compost, 25% cocofiber and 50% crushed leaf litter. This layer needs to be approximately 6 inches deep and then topped with a 2 inch layer of crushed leaf litter (oak is especially good, limit pine needles) and rotting wood. Rotting wood should be from non-pine trees if possible and soft enough to dig into with a fingernail. All substrates should be sterilized by drying in the oven or heating for several minutes in a microwave (make sure items are moist/wet before microwaving otherwise you could ignite the materials). Add in chalk and/or a vitamin/mineral supplement and only present supplemental foods once weekly to start and scale back feedings if all the food is not consumed vigorously. Keep the substrate moist, not sopping wet and add more substrate/food layer monthly. The Philadelphia Zoo is currently testing this new method since they have not yet been successful in getting a breeding colony established and will update this wiki with results of the trial. UPDATE – there are now confirmed baby millipedes in the colonies that have been housed using this method so it appears to be successful.
- Mites are frequently seen on millipedes and it is not yet known if the mites are commensal or parasitic. The best current rule of thumb is to not let get mite populations get too large. Mites can be controlled by substrate sterilization and substrate changes as needed.
- Per discussion online, Ray Mendez has noted that you must vigorously protect these millipedes from coffin (phorid) flies. They look somewhat like fruit flies but have a humped back and tend to walk more than fly. They have caused damage and possibly death by laying eggs in the body of the millipede which hatch out into maggots and cause a long slow decline and subsequent death of the millipede. Vigor around fly control is therefore recommended.
Notes on Enrichment & Training
Philadelphia Zoo: We only dig up the bins twice per year for colony checks/counts; you can crush babies accidentally if you disturb things too much.
At Hogle Zoo: We have been fairly unsuccessful in finding something that works well with millipedes (since they are in a higher humidity environment and are underground, things rub off). We purchased some pens that someone recommended for bees, but those marks flaked off after the first day. These are the pens we used without success: Queen Marking Pen
See: Temperature and Transport: Welfare Implications for Ambassador Ectotherms from AASAG Newsletter, Dec. 2016
- Brandywine Zoo: Millipedes are transported in Kritter Keeper lined with about 1″ of substrate from their enclosure as well as cover, such as leaf litter, cork bark, sphagnum moss, or other items they can “hide” under. Their carrier is misted well with aged water for transport.
- Brandywine Zoo: Kritter Keepers are typically packed into a larger cooler for ease of transport and temperature control. If temperatures are under 65F, a hot water bottle is packed inside the cooler.
Tips on Presentation
- Millipedes are a safe animal when used for programs and are very popular with audiences as long as they are handled with care (see next section).
- Guests may touch with one or two fingers on the the back of the millipede.
- They should not be allowed to touch the animal’s face or antennae.
- Guests should be immediately instructed to wash hands or use hand sanitizer where hand washing is not available.
Tips on Handling
- People with skin sensitivities should be aware that millipedes can secrete a liquid that can be irritating. This also may be a sign that the animal is stressed so it may be good to discontinue handling with that particular animal if that occurs.
- Handling millipedes seems to shorten their lifespan so plan on rotating animals used for programs so no specific animal is handled excessively. You can temporarily mark millipedes for individual identification with a dot of nail polish. This will only last until the next molt though so it is not a long term method. To allow the dot time to dry have the millipede walk around on your hand. Alternatively, you set up different tanks of millipedes and only use animals from certain tanks on certain days of the week in order to even out handling across multiple animals.
- Millipedes cannot survive falls or drops, even from short distances of a few inches. They will show no outward signs of injury other than a slow death so be vigilant in training handlers to guard against this.
- Invertebrates are a lot like you (and so deserve respect!) Their exoskeleton is made of keratin, just like human fingernails and hair. They have muscles, nerves and a beating heart. They have complex behaviors.
- Importance of decomposers. Importance of all of the “little animals” to the web of life and the balance of nature.
Very commonly kept and bred in captivity.
See Invertebrate Acquisitions document for list of sources and testimonials.
USDA has an embargo on Giant African millipede imports, so it is difficult to acquire this species in the United States. A number of institutions are trying to captive breed this species due to this difficulty.
Seneca Park Zoo has had success purchasing millipedes from Wards Natural Science in Rochester, NY. They are a national supplier of science materials for schools, so they will ship across the country if need be. Their link is: http://wardsci.com/search.asp?t=ss&ss=Millipede&x=20&y=10 Wards does not actually sell Giant African millipedes; they supply a similar species (Thyrophygus ssp. or similar) that can be used in the same programs. Not all of Wards millipedes are captive-bred.
To hold this species, an institution must apply for a USDA APHIS plant pest permit, or amend an established permit to include this species. Go to http://www.aphis.usda.gov/permits/ppq_epermits.shtml for more information.
Comments from the Rating System
- Buffalo Zoo: No-touch and must be displayed in carrier. Some ‘wow’ factor for size.
- Henry Vilas Zoo: FANTASTIC ed. animal!, can be touched, impressive
- Lee Richardson Zoo: have not had for a few years after loss of our last individuals. Difficult to obtain.
- Maryland Zoo in Baltimore: We have tried this species several times. Once they get to a suitable size for programming and presentation, they are very old and die off. We have eliminated them from our future collection plan.
- Roger Williams Park Zoo: Sensitive – considerations in handling
- Zoo New England, Stone Zoo: Another great invertebrate for beginning handlers!
Natural History Information
Range and Habitat
This species is native to tropical and subtropical regions of western Africa
African giant millipedes have a deep flat black color. Each body segment has two pairs of legs (this helps differentiate them from centipedes, which only have one pair of legs per segment.) They can grow to be 12 inches long and as thick around as your thumb. Males and females look similar, but males have a pair of specialized legs on the seventh segment that is used for transferring sperm.
During breeding, the male will use a modified pair of legs to transfer his sperm to the female. After fertilization, eggs are laid in a walled chamber that the female had constructed from specially prepared dung.
Juvenile millipedes are called neonates. They are white and have only a few body segments, and three pairs of legs. The neonates go through many molts, adding segments and legs as they grow. Their color darkens gradually as they age.
In the wild, these millipedes can live up to 7 years. In captivity, they may last a little longer – maybe 10 years.
African giant millipedes are docile and calm, and can live communally without many issues. They spend most of their time in underground burrows and chambers, where sight is not important. They will use their antennae, feet, and mouthparts to feel around the environment and detect scents.
The most common defensive position is coiled into a tight spiral. If dropped or pinch, an African giant millipede can secrete a liquid that is made up of hydrochloric acid. This liquid may be harmful to some of its natural predators, but not to humans.
Threats and Conservation Status
Did you know…
- Although the name “millipede” means “1000 feet,” the adults probably have only 200 to 300.
- They breathe through their spiracles, or small pores along the sides of the body segments. The spiracles cannot be closed, and water loss can be a problem. For this reason, they are only found in humid climates, and they are active at night when there is less danger of drying out.
Photo Credit: Brandywine Zoo
Contributors and Citations
- Brandywine Zoo
- Hogle Zoo
- The Philadelphia Zoo